Explaining Jim Flaherty’s skin condition, bullous pemphigoid

TORONTO – Last year, Jim Flaherty conceded that he was battling a rare skin condition. Less a month ago, the 64-year-old stepped down from his finance minister posting.

Flaherty died on Thursday. Reports suggest that Flaherty had a “massive heart attack.”

READ MORE: Jim Flaherty passes away at 64

But could it be related to his condition?

After fielding questions about his health and his changing appearance, in January 2013, Flaherty said that he had bullous pemphigoid – a skin disease that would require treatment.

The condition is rare, and there are no definitive statistics on how prevalent it is. The disease causes large, fluid-filled blisters on areas of the skin that often flex, such as the lower abdomen and upper thighs.

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READ MORE: Political career highlights of Jim Flaherty

It’s most common in people older than 60.

In Flaherty’s case, reports about a “puffy, bloated” face had tipped off reporters and worried colleagues. When he stepped down, he insisted that it had nothing to do with his health.

Dr. Barry Rubin, medical director of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, met with Flaherty a month ago while he was still finance minister.

The pair was working on a partnership between University Health Network and Technion Israel Institute of Technology.

“There was nothing that suggested to me as a physician that he was having any heart-related issues,” Rubin told Global News.

“He was lively, engaged, clearly knew about the issues we were there to discuss.”

In treatment, medication is used to help the skin heal as quickly as possible. In Flaherty’s case, reports say he was using prednisone, a strong steroid which is the most common treatment for the disease.

Long-term use can increase your risk of weak bones, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cataracts, the Mayo Clinic warns.

READ MORE: Canadian politicians react to Flaherty’s death on Twitter

Dr. Ravi Tahiliani warns that small studies have linked prednisone to increasing the risk of heart failure and hypertension.

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The steroid is used to suppress inflammation and is commonly used to treat a string of conditions: COPD, thyroid disease, lupus and cancer, for example.

Neither of the doctors have treated Flaherty and they say that without medical history on hand or an autopsy, it’s unclear what happened in Flaherty’s case.

Tahiliani, Lakeridge Health’s chief of cardiology, says that Flaherty could have been living with heart disease. He held a high-stress, high-stakes job as finance minister, but experts don’t know if he smoked, exercised or ate healthy fare.

As for the “massive” heart attack terminology, both Tahiliani and Rubin say that the term is used loosely and could mean many different things. A large portion of Flaherty’s heart muscle might have died, stopping him from pumping out blood to get to the rest of his body; or he could have had a heart arrhythmia.

For now, it’s all speculation, the doctors say.